Reclaiming Nottingham – The Malt Cross

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Next in our Reclaiming Nottingham series is a venue close to my heart. The Malt Cross cafe bar and music hall has been one of my favourite haunts for many years. Now it has been granted money from the Heritage Lottery Fund to expand into the caves and rooms below. Jo Cox-Brown, Chief Executive of the Malt Cross Trust, was kind enough to answer our questions and curiosities about the project.

Hidden away on St James’ Street off the Market Square in the centre of town, the Malt Cross is a gem worth finding. A gated doorway from what appears to be an ordinary terrace of shops and bars leads into one of the last remaining traditional music halls in the country. With a vaulted glass ceiling and several original features such as the cast iron flooring and mezzanine stage, the Malt Cross has a unique atmosphere.

The Malt Cross was developed as a social enterprise, before the term really started getting bandied about. “In 2002 a consortium of city centre churches, St John’s College and the University Chaplains formed a new Malt Cross Trust with the ambition to recapture the spirit of the music hall and monastery that stood on the site, providing not only a space for modern performers, but also for the community to gather.” Jo explains.

Strong links with the Christian community in Nottingham have ensured the venue has charitable aims and that it remains a haven from the ugly side of Nottingham’s binge-drinking culture, with projects like the Street Pastors using it as a base. Within its rich history, however, it has also had its run of debauchery – “Originally built in 1877 by entrepreneur Charles Weldon and designed by architect Edwin Hill, The Malt Cross functioned as a music hall until the venue closed its doors in 1911 after its licence was revoked for ‘allowing the house to be used as a habitual resort for women of ill-repute’.  

“During this period it played host to a fascinating collection of characters and performers, including comedians, comic boxing acts, big boot dancers, Tyrolean vocalists and singers such as music hall favourite George Lashwood. It is also rumoured that the legendary Charlie Chaplin and The Elephant Man may have made appearances. The architectural drawings even show there was a proposed roller-skating rink in the basement– a popular pastime in Victorian Britain.”

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The building was used as a warehouse and then the venue was split in the 1960s, with the basement level (now being reclaimed) being converted to a restaurant, while the upper floors were office space until The Potter’s House Trust took over in the late 1980s. The Malt Cross Trust took over in the mid-90s and with earlier Heritage Lottery funding began extensive renovations to restore the space to its former glory.

A combination of the latest successful bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund and other fundraising efforts by the Malt Cross Trust have brought a mighty £1.7m in to continue developing what this venue has to offer the city. They’re currently in the process of renovating two basement level floors and a cave below the venue.

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Jo says – “The sandstone cave space is fascinating. It gives us a real insight into what the site was like before the Malt Cross was built when it sat parallel to the Carmelite Monastery, which was established in Nottingham in the late 13th century.  Although we do not know if the monks ever used our caves there are stories that have yet to be unearthed that may prove a connection.

“In the centre of the cave is an old well that could be as deep as 40ft. We have a team of amateur archaeologists excavating this for us and we’re all intrigued to see what secrets it holds.

Key findings so far have included:

The entrance to a secret passageway to the cave, the original purpose of which is being investigated.

● The discovery of an entrance to a secret passageway and room (approx 12ft x 12ft x 20ft), hidden behind a fake wall in the basement toilets.

● A traditional (potentially Victorian) barrel holder with original weights, which was concealed behind a wall.

● An authentic Victorian glazed brick archway.

Egyptian-themed artwork, believed to be from the early twentieth century, was discovered on the walls on the lower basement floor. (British interest in replicating Egyptian style had started as early as 1830 but it was the Egyptian excavations by prominent British archaeologists during the 1920s and 1930s that lead to ‘Egytomania’ in England, with this style influencing fashion, architecture and interior decorating.)

● A selection of wallpaper fragments dating from various points in Malt Cross history.  

● A replica frieze relief of a goddess made by the British Museum (approximately 1960, pictured below).

● A number of pieces of ephemera such as old cigarette packets and matchbooks. These are a great source of social history and insight into past advertising styles.

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The Malt Cross Trust and the team working there are keen to expand on their existing offering to the creative community of Nottingham. Since 2003 it has been used for art exhibitions and as a meeting place for various groups including knitters and writers. With extra space this aspect is set to grow.

Jo explains – “We’re creating a new Heritage, Arts and Crafts Hub. It will be a multi purpose space that will host heritage learning, design and craft activities, music practice space and an art gallery. The project will deliver a range of heritage activities for schools and the general public, including the creation of a website recording the heritage of the Malt Cross Music Hall and other music halls and their performers.

Working in partnership with creative arts organisations, we want to deliver a range of heritage-based music hall performances and creative displays of archives, as well as intriguing interpretations of music hall life. The project will also focus on the role of the Malt Cross in Victorian Nottingham.

The rehearsal space created by the building work will allow us, and our creative partners, to work with emerging talent to build their confidence and skills, and ultimately, prepare them to make the move to our main stage as a resident act.

The project will also preserve the integrity of the building by completing substantial conservation work. We have a hidden gem on our hands and it is vital that future generations will benefit from it too.”

Many thanks to Jo Cox-Brown for answering our questions. Regular updates on the Malt Cross renovation can be found by visiting www.maltcross.com or following the venue’s social media channels:
Facebook: www.facebook.com/maltcrossnotts
Twitter: @maltcross
All photographs are copyright of The Malt Cross Trust, please seek permission before reposting.

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